THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS FEATURE
unnervingly similar to the monster masks they wear — are dispatched to nab the jolly fat guy. Not everything goes to plan. of course; but how was Jack. carried away by his naive enthusiasm, to know that the children of the normal world wouldn’t appreciate shrunken heads or hungry snakes for presents?
That a film so deviously dark was made as a stop-motion animated feature under the auspices of Disney will be a surprise to many. However. Burton’s links with the studio go back several years. to the Disney fellowship that allowed him to study at the California Institute of the Arts and the period he spent working as one of a bored team of animators drawing cute animals on The Fox And The Hound. For his own amusement, he sketched out the main character designs for Nightmare and composed the children’s poem on which the story is based. The studio. then at the lowest creative point in its history. understandably wasn’t willing to take a chance on the youngster; but once he had enjoyed the box office clout of a couple of Batman movies and the studio itself had seen a turnaround in its fortunes, now was the time to branch out into territory that would have Walt spinning in his grave.
‘The first rule of thumb for animation at Disney is to give your characters expressive eyes,’ says Burton. ‘Our hero has no eyes and some of the others have theirs sewn shut. The animators working on the film were able to take a figure like this, with no eyes. and breathe a lot of life into it. That’s the most amazing aspect —l was in awe, daily, every time I’d see a shot come through. This style of animation has always been around. from early on in things like King Kong and the Ray Harryhausen movies. and there’s something about the handmade quality that will never really lose its appeal.’
With comments like this. Burton is keen to share the praise with his collaborators. The film may be marketed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas — ‘I think that was so'as to not besmear the good name of Walt.’ he jests — but Burton himself is credited only as producer and creator of the characters and story. The director, Henry Selick, knew Burton when they studied at CalArts and suffered those gloomy days at Disney in the early 80$ (‘lt’s as though he laid the egg, but i sat on it and hatched it,’ says Selick of Nightmare); among a group of animators working on the project was Englishman Paul Berry. whose much-admired short The Sandman uses similar techniques; the screenplay. fleshing out Burton’s original idea, was written by Caroline Thompson, who also scripted Edward Scissor/zands and The Secret Garden; and the distinctive score — this is. don’t forget, a musical - is brilliantly done by long- time Burton cohort Danny Elfman.
The collaboration process may involve many, but, nevertheless, the animator’s art is traditionally a lonely one. Within Hollywood’s extroven community. Burton has won himself a reputation as a weird reclusive figure, as alienated from the real world as Edward Seissorhands in his abandoned loft or the young boy in the director’s early black-and-white
f A Black Christmas
Pumpkin King Jack Skellington, Sally and their creator Tim Burton
short, Vincent. who would rather imagine himself as horror icon Vincent Price than play outside in the sun. As such. he‘s been heralded as a messiah by legions of gothic—costumed teenagers. an image he’ll shrug off in conversation while decking himself out head to foot in black. wearing sunglasses indoors and sporting a hairdo that looks like it slipped from a Cure video. It’s easy to imagine him as the archetypal lonely child. shunned by classmates and taking refuge in a world of macabre imagination.
‘The first rule of thumb for animation at Disney is to give your characters expressive eyes. Our hero has no eyes and some of the others have
theirs sewn shut.’
‘This was a place with no weather. no culture. where people weren’t emotional with each other.’ he says of his childhood in Burbank. California. ‘l grew up there looking for any kind of stimulation; walking down store aisles filled with Halloween stuff was the only way to experience Fall. likewise Christmas and winter. I guess I responded to the holidays for their sense of ritual and their colour schemes.’
The creative misﬁt has. despite himself. found his Hollywood niche. thanks to the man in the bat costume. Burton’s connection with the third instalment in the Batman series. to be directed by Joel Schumacher, will be limited to a tangential producer’s role (‘I’ll be one of those guys on the set with a cup of coffee. looking around. making sure i get the good donuts before they all go’). but he’s also developing a script for a Catwontan spin-off. with an option to direct. It’s also rumoured that he was well ahead of Kenneth Branagh in the queue when the Mary Shelley ’s Frcmkenstein job was on offer — ‘If it was me . . . well, ljust refused to take my shirt off so often.’
Already in the can, but not due for a UK release until mid-95, is Burton’s masterpiece — Ed Wood. Again a product of the Disney stable, this is an affectionately realised, unconventional biopic of the man who directed such Z-grade classics as Plan 9 From Outer Space and the original transvestite tale. Glen 0r Glenda. Shot in luscious black-and-white, the movie revels in the atmosphere of a Hollywood where enthusiasm serves instead of talent, and boasts a set of complex performances from great actors playing bad actors. Johnny Depp, whose outing as Edward Scissorhands was the perfect example of his shyly introverted style. does a 180 degree turn as the whirlwind of optimism and energy that was Edward D. Wood, Jr; Martin Landau, whose own career has ranged from the glories of Crimes And Misdemeanors to a guest spot on Gilligan’s Island, brings the perfect balance of dignity and ham to the dying Bela Lugosi and should be given the Best Supporting Actor Oscar forthwith.
A key scene in the film has the frustrated Ed, angry at his financial backers’ meddling in Plan 9, storm into a bar only to come face to face with Orson Welles (a magnificent cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio). Awestruck. he introduces himself and solicits a few words of wisdom from the great man. Burton seems to suggest that it doesn’t matter if Citizen Kane is regarded as cinema’s zenith and Plan 9 as its nadir: these two men — writers, directors, producers, stars - stuck to their visions and should be applauded for their determination. As he continues to go against the tide and delve into the grotesque side of the Hollywood fairytale, this is the spiritual company that Tim Burton is keeping. After all. it can’t have been easy to convince the studio executives of the merits of a monochrome feature about a crap director who loved wearing Q women’s clothes. D Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas opens in Scotland on Friday 2 December: Ed Wood is scheduled for a May release.
The List 2—15 December 1994 21